Not What He Meant

Rabbi Avi Weiss' recent essay distorts the Rav's position on centralized rabbinic authority.

Wed, 03/26/2014
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Wikimedia Commons
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Wikimedia Commons

In his essay opposing central religious authority (“In the Legacy of the Rav,” Opinion, March 14), Rabbi Avi Weiss misuses the fact that the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik would occasionally ask young rabbis who came to him, “What do you think?”

Rabbi Weiss distorts the anecdote by implying that the Rav would defer major halachic (Jewish law) decisions to these young rabbis. In fact, the Rav, the mentor to a generation of young rabbis, was engaging those who sought his view in a dialogue that he believed was an important element of the halachic process and that further developed their reasoning as early-career spiritual leaders.

Rabbi Weiss is correct that, “When done properly, psak [halachic ruling] is rendered by local community rabbis in consultation, when necessary, with great Torah scholars.” This is exactly what occurred when Rabbi Weiss was a young rabbi: Halachic conclusions — especially on major issues — were reached in consultation with the Rav, the central rabbinic authority of that time, and not by a young rabbi or his peers acting on their own intuitions.

The more than 230 graduates of RIETS who celebrated at the March 23 Chag Hasemichah (holiday of ordination) have been empowered to engage in the halachic process through the careful mentoring of their teachers and their many years of high-level Torah study. But they, like the Rav, are groomed to be humble enough to ask the question — from student to teacher — “What do you think?”

Far from a “corrosion” of the halachic process, as Rabbi Weiss calls it, consulting with senior Torah scholars demonstrates an appropriate display of reverence for halacha and the Jewish people whose lives it guides. It also reflects a commitment to sound, relevant decision making, which is critical in every profession in society.

For more than a century, RIETS has produced community rabbis that are open-minded, non-judgmental and loving of all Jews. Our graduates occupy the pulpits of major synagogues, work on college campuses with Jews of all denominations and simply do not meet the stereotypical image that Rabbi Weiss tries to paint. One can be loving and understanding, and open minded, and still be true to the halachic process of the past 3,000 years.

Rabbi Menachem Penner is the Acting Dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Comments

From the comment below-"It is religiously discriminatory against Jewish people to make a requirement in a bachelor degree any other degree to have to study secular literature. We know what it contains, and how it subtly and not so subtly affects people’s neshomas. It is better not to believe that if a young yid who is “semi” secular reads such secular literature in a Jewish university setting then one is not responsible for that neshama."

How true!

The government has set those standards in degree courses and WE are the ones who have to tread around them.

I believe it is religiously discriminatory against Jewish people to make a requirement in a bachelor degree any other degree to have to study secular literature. We know what it contains, and how it subtly and not so subtly affects people’s neshomas. It is better not to believe that if a young yid who is “semi” secular reads such secular literature in a Jewish university setting then one is not responsible for that neshama.

Rav Avraham Chaim Na'ah - material that may not be read -“publications include many things such as heresy, frivolity, etc ”
Rama in 246:4 Shulchan Aruch- Yoreh De’ah said "it is permissible to now and then study secular wisdom, provided that this excludes works of heresy... and that one knows what is permissible and forbidden, and the rules and the mitzvot " . Rama’s source is the Yerushalmi Sanhedrin.
No Jew is allowed to read books about other religions.

Both Rabbi Weiss and Rabbi Penner are correct. Rabbi Weiss is correct in saying that once a Rabbi is ordained, he has the power to make Halachic decisions and Rabbi Penner is correct in saying that the Rabbis being ordained by REITS are not qualified to make Halachic decisions. How is that possible? The fault lies with RETIS itself. The shool created a process by which a person who comes to class for four years and passes the required exams receives ordination. In other words, being granted Semicha is like being awarded a Bachelor's degree or a Masters. That is not what Semicha was supposed to represent. Semicha should be granted by a teacher to a student only after the teacher believes that the student has the necessary ability to make Halachic decisions because that is what the public perceives as what Semicha means.

I would suggest that YU needs to reconsider how it goes about ordaining Rabbis. They are the ones responsible for causing what is an ugly spat to be played out in front of the entire Jewish community.

My dear friend Rabbi Penner is right and wrong. It is certainly true that students of the Rav spoke to him about complex issues if they felt he could be of help, as the teachers both he and I studied under attested to on a number of occasions. On the other hand, many of those same teachers told us stories of how the Rav upbraided his Talmidim for not making decisions on their own. To paraphrase the response I have heard, "What did I give you Semicha for?" was often the answer the former student received. Rabbi Penner is too young to have studied with the Rav, I was around YU in the last few years of his teaching career, so neither of us were in the room when these conversations took place. Rabbis as diverse as Rabbi Weiss, Rabbi Lamm, Rabbi Schacter, and Rabbi Chaim Ilson were, and judging by the diverse stories we have heard from these revered teachers, it is fair to say that the Rav didn't have "one" approach to the issue of Rabbinic authority, but judged each situation on its merits. Perhaps that is the real legacy of the Rav.

I'm not disagreeing with R' Penner on this one, but I find it odd that a man too young to have been exposed to the Rav in any meaningful way should be "schooling" someone about what the Rav did or didn't mean. Just a bit bizarre.

And does R' Penner think that R' Weiss asked the Rav questions about brachose on breakfast cereals, or whether hagomel should be recited on airplane trips? Of course I don't know, but I'm guessing that R' Weiss consulted the Rav on some touchier policy question which you might call "major issues", and yet perhaps the Rav felt that even on such issues there was room for collegial disagreement?

I heard the Rav (on a taped shiur) say: "I'm not going to answer that because I want Rabbi Menachem Genack to know that he is in charge of this issue." This, however, does not mean that the Rav would have accepted girls wearing tefillin or women chazzaniyot davening Kabbalat Shabbat. He had very strong opinions against changing traditions in these matters.

The difference here is whether the rabbinic leaders at Yeshiva today turn to their students and invite them and their perspective as a part of the process or whether the process as revealed involved is one where every personal or public rabbinic decision needs to seek approval and infallible answers from the Roshei yeshiva as the only legitimate method of psak

Dear Rabbi, you wrote:
"RIETS has produced community rabbis that are open-minded, non-judgmental and loving of all Jews. Our graduates occupy the pulpits of major synagogues, work on college campuses with Jews of all denominations"

I hope those rabbis convert those Jews of all denominations and not the other way around, get converted out of Judaism into "the denominations". This is the test Avi Weiss failed. Maybe the fact that YU teaches other religions etc could have something to do with it. They also teach other "literature". Can't some stadtlans ask the government to change the requirements for university degrees, so that Jews don't have to do what is against Torah? Please.

No one is forcing anyone to attend YU and no one is forcing anyone to be exposed to ideas that they don't agree with. If someone doesn't want to be exposed to other religions or to literature, or, indeed to any idea that does not meet the latest humra, they don't have to. They can just go to a technical school that provides computer training, or learn how to be an electrician or a plumber. And there is nothing wrong with this. Just don't call it a university degree. As for your idea of asking the government to change the requirements for what qualifies as a BA or BS, in order to meet your religious ideas, read the Constitution of the United States, especially the part about separation of church and state. Please.

Well said. Thank you, Rabbi Penner.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.